Sebastian Barry : In search of the last turkey in Ireland

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The Independent Culture

Here we are in the 1960s, old Victorian terrace house facing the storming sea, the crackle of December greys and changing browns and touches of pitch moving across the water. The seaside hotel across the road stands all its feet in darkest shadows, a startling ghost in every room. Even my grandfather, who is a painter, couldn't capture this violently altering scene. I am about 11, standing at an upstairs window. There is snow all along the top of the granite wall that fringes our terrace, very very white and burning but for all that like the crust of an endless loaf. The glass gives me back a version of my face, the eyes floating in a ruined whiteness.

I can see trouble below. My father is just arriving back from town but he is stopping the white Volkswagen in the middle of the road, not pulling into the curb. He gets out ' and falls towards the pavement, a splash of sudden green ink on the snow, in his green coat. Then rises more or less to his knees and starts the tricky climb up the stone steps, vanishing from sight under the canopy of the front door.

When I go out on to the landing he has come surprisingly quickly in from the outer hall and has already begun the ascent towards me. Eventually he passes in a compressed storm of huffing and bluster.

I have shrunk back into the blankness of the bathroom. The tap is dripping, dripping. Then he is gone and I take the easy route down, sliding sideways on the banister rail. Whoosh, whap as I hit the first landing, whoosh, whap.

My mother is also a storm of sorts, banging about in the kitchen. She's looking to see what she has. My father was commissioned to bring home the turkey, the pudding, the ham, the spuds, the chestnuts, and all the other devious whatsits of Christmas. My big sister is sitting on a stool looking like something has hit her in the face, but only shadows have. My father never hits us.

My mother looks at me with her nice face all worked over by panic. It's about five o'clock on a dark Christmas Eve. Even the storm at sea has turned up its volume, or maybe the front door is still open and the storm is creeping in to see how we live. "All right, all right," she says, "get on your coat. We'll run up to Dunleary." On with our coats, out into the painterly storm.

She gives a vague glance at the white car, being covered with a further coat of white. The coat of the sky is a savage procession of devil-dark cloud and streaking yellow and blues. Nothing will stand still. The long curving road goes blackly up towards Dunleary. The snow wants to cover your face with a million sharp cold kisses. Goodbye, goodbye, hello, hello.

We reach the dark precincts of York Road. The river of this road rises in the corporation houses, and to serve them are a few decrepit Victorian shops. My mother is scanning them for light, and though she doesn't go to church and curses the priests for their sins, she is praying. Maybe pagan prayers, because she is from Sligo.

We find a lighted shop, it is a cluttered little place, and in it she discovers the last plum pudding in Ireland. With directions from the startled man behind the counter, we go to a famished butchers shop, and she nearly falls upon the breast of the last turkey in Ireland. The ham must be foregone. The lights are going off all over Dunleary. We make our way back down the hill, with our treasures.

My mother is amazed, almost silent, almost all noise in her silence, we don't know if we are the luckiest family in Ireland or the unluckiest.

"What in the name of God would have happened to this turkey if we hadn't come in to buy it at the last minute?" she says, not really asking me, but asking the bushes shrugging in the luxuriance of the storm wind, asking the sky with its pristine riot of yellow and blue, asking the driven specks of snow, crash-landing on the concrete pavement but not sitting now, because the world is no longer cold enough for the snow to sit.

Sebastian Barry's latest novel, 'The Secret Scripture', published by Faber, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008

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